ROME (Reuters) - If the America’s Cup is the Formula One of sailing, then Russell Coutts is giving enthusiasts the chance to sample being the equivalent of Lewis Hamilton or Fernando Alonso.
The New Zealander has created a new class, RC 44, designed to take amateurs up close and personal with the experience of competing in sailing’s most prestigious event.
“It’s a new concept that combines many of the sport’s different elements into one format,” Coutts told Reuters in a telephone interview.
“It basically gives people the chance to experience America’s Cup racing in a simpler format. And they seem to enjoy it.”
Coutts was speaking at the end of the maiden season of the RC 44 Championship Tour in which amateur yacht owners raced alongside, and against, America’s Cup big guns such as himself, James Spithill and Dean Barker.
The eight regattas are made up of fleet races with the owners at the helm and one-on-one match races when the pro skippers call the shots.
“The owners can only have four professionals on their team in the fleet racing,” explained the three-times America’s Cup-winning skipper and Olympic gold medalist. “Then we drive in the match racing, so they can see and learn from us.”
All the teams use a single-design boat, created by engineering graduate Coutts and naval architect Andrej Justin.
“We wanted to include a degree of complexity so an owner can experience what a top-end race boat is like to sail,” said Coutts.
“I like to drive nice cars and it’s like that. It is like giving people the chance to drive a high-performance sports car.
“Having amateur owners aboard adds a dimension. It works in a similar way to a Pro-Am golf tournament and that’s why it’s a good format.”
Teams from Italy, Croatia, Japan, Slovenia, Dubai, Portugal, Poland, China and Ireland took part in the 2007 RC 44 Championship Tour.
Organizers’ expect new crews to join the class in 2008.
“It’s a really nice experience and very tough,” said Italian businessman Armando Giulietti, the owner behind the Hiroshi-Citta di Milano team.
“You have to set up a crew and develop it with sailing practice, training and preparation of the boat. And when you win, it’s like landing a big contract with a client.”
One of the features of the RC 44 yacht is that it is made to fit into a specially designed container in order to simplify logistics and reduce transport costs.
Coutts said this has made it possible for the tour to visit places that would normally be too costly to reach, including inland venues such as Lugano in Switzerland and Italy’s Lake Garda.
Part of the reason the 45-year-old created the class was to broaden sailing’s appeal.
Organizers’ say the RC 44 tour seeks to “sail closer to the public” by racing near to the shore and giving fans the opportunity to meet the sailors at social events after the regattas.
“Sailing is a fantastic sport. It deserves to become more popular,” Coutts said.
“With RC 44 there is an emphasis on having fun, visiting places and having nice parties, as well as good racing. It puts a social side into the sport, like there is with rugby.”
However, the opportunity to race with the likes of Coutts and Spithill will be limited to a wealthy elite, as a RC 44 yacht costs around 400,000 euros ($574,700).
Coutts led New Zealand crews to America’s Cup victories in 1995 and 2000 before helping Swiss team Alinghi take the famous trophy away from his homeland in 2003.
He did not take part in the last America’s Cup after falling out with Alinghi in 2004. Coutts will lead United States syndicate BMW Oracle at the 33rd America’s Cup.
This was originally scheduled for Valencia in 2009 but the regatta is in doubt because of a dispute between Alinghi and the New Zealander’s present team.
Coutts’s achievements also include a Finn class sailing gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Editing by Dave Thompson